5 Best Yann Martel Books You’ll Love

Discover the best Yann Martel books in our guide to finding your next favorite novel.

Author Yann Martel was born in Spain in 1963 and traveled widely as a child, spending time in Portugal, Spain, and Alaska before the Martel family finally settled in Canada. Once they made roots in Victoria, BC, the family joined the Canadian foreign service and continued to travel. As a child, Martel spent time in Costa Rica, Madrid, Paris, and Ottawa. The author finished his junior and senior high school years in Port Hope, Ontario, before earning his undergraduate degree in philosophy at Trent University.

If you’re working on getting your start as an author and searching for the best books on writing fiction, you’re likely to encounter Martel’s name in some of your research. For many Martel fans, it’s hard to believe that the author was unsuccessful. He started writing in college, but today, he reflects on his university works as immature.

After finishing college, Martel worked several odd jobs, including working as a tree planter, a dishwasher, and a security guard. In addition, he took some time to travel after finishing school, spending time in Turkey, India, Iran, Mexico, and South America.

A Brief History of Yann Martel’s Career

Yann Martel
Yann Martel via Wikipedia, Public Domain

It took some time for Martel’s first work to appear in print. Finally, in 1988, The Malahat Review published Martel’s short story, Mister Ali and the Barrelmaker. The publication also published his 1990 short story, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, which was included in the 1991-1992 Pushcart Prize Anthology and was awarded the 1991 Journey Prize.

The Malahat Review continued to publish Martel’s short stories, including the National Magazine Award winner The Time I heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton. The editors at Malahat weren’t the only ones who took notice of Martel’s promise. In 1991 and 1997, The Canada Council for the Arts awarded Martel writing grants, allowing him to focus on honing his craft as an author.

Malahat’s first novel, Self, was published in the UK, Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands in 1996. Life of Pi was Malahat’s second novel and received wide critical acclaim following its release in 2001. The novel earned the Man Booker Prize in 2002 and spent more than a year on The New York Times Bestseller List.

For four years, beginning in 2007, Martel and the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, ran a book club together. Martel sent a book every two weeks to the Prime Minister, allowing them to develop a friendship and discuss the great literary works of the time. Martel always included a letter with his bi-weekly selection, and these letters were published in 2012 under the title 101 Letters to a Prime Minister.

While Martel is best known for Life of Pi following the story’s release as a major motion picture, many of his other works have been met with widespread critical acclaim. However, the author’s eclectic writing style makes it tough to put his work into a box. Some celebrate Martel as one of the best science fiction authors, while others argue that his best-known books fall into the fantasy, partial fiction, and fable categories.

1. The Life of Pi

Published in 2001, Martel’s second novel derived wide critical acclaim and was made into a blockbuster movie a decade later. The Life of Pi follows the story of Pi Patel, a teenage Indian boy who finds himself wrestling with religion, love, and family. When Pi was 16, his family moved from India to Canada. Unfortunately, their ship also houses a number of zoo animals belonging to Pi’s zookeeper father. On their journey, the ship sinks, and Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with a wounded zebra, a 450-pound tiger, an orangutan, and a hyena.

All the lifeboat’s passengers perish except the tiger and Pi, and together, they learn to live with one another–slowly and with great difficulty. From weathering thunderstorms to constantly battling the hunger and thirst that plagues them, Pi and the tiger struggle to find a way to live alongside one another.

Some readers believe that the tiger is a metaphor for the battles that lie within all humans. Throughout the book, readers begin to sympathize with both Pi and the tiger, and many feel that the tale of the two teaches them to show sympathy and compassion for themselves. When Pi and the tiger finally arrive at the shore after nearly a year at sea together, the tiger disappears into the woods, never to be seen again. The book leaves its characters and readers alike wondering how much of the story they can believe.

“I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unnerving ease. It begins in your mind, always … so you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don’t, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you.”

Yann Martel

2. The High Mountains of Portugal

This 2016 novel by Yann Martel is set in Lisbon in 1904. Tomas, the book’s protagonist, finds a journal that seems to leave clues about a priceless artifact left behind by history. Tomas begins to travel through Europe on a hunt to find his treasure. The book follows Tomas through the ups and downs of his life, taking readers to an unexpected end fifty years after Tomas began the process of searching for treasure–and meaning.

The book takes readers on a journey of how love and life change and grow over time and the importance of asking questions about faith. Like many of Martel’s books, critics have trouble fitting the story into any category, as it contains elements of a fable, a mystery, and an adventure.

“A very long sentence, anchored in solid nouns, with countless subordinate clauses, scores of adjectives and adverbs, and bold conjunctions that launched the sentence in a new direction–besides unexpected interludes–has finally, with a surprisingly quiet full stop, come to an end.”

Yann Martel

3. The Facts Behind The Helsinki Roccamatios

This book includes a selection of four short stories: The Facts Behind The Helsinki Roccamatios, The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin by the American composer John Morton, Manners of Dying, and The Vita Eterna Mirror Company: Mirrors to Last till Kingdom Come.

All the stories in the collection were written by a young Martel, allowing fans of his later work to see how his writing has developed over time. This collection was first published in 1993. Reviewers state that the stories in this collection are simpler than Martel’s later works yet still offer the transformative quality that readers expect from the author. Like always, Martel is not afraid to tackle the hard subjects of life, love, loss, suffering, and the human condition. Looking for more fiction novels to read? Check out our round-up of the best John Updike books!

“How does one say in the jargon of musicology that my soul was pulled out of me and thrown up in the air, to be tossed about by the music. How does one say that I breathed, that I existed, in harmony with the ups and downs of those notes. What kind of notes both elevate and cast down, exalt and crush?”

Yann Martel

4. Beatrice and Virgil

This 2010 novel by Yann Martel is often heralded as having similar qualities to Life of Pi, as it takes the reader on a journey of fate and semi-fantasy. The novel stars Henry, a man who receives a letter from an elderly gentleman who poses a strange question. Henry isn’t sure about the man’s motives but decides to move forward and attempt to solve the problem.

As Henry learns more about the man and his question, he gets closer to Beatrice, a donkey, and Virgil, a howler monkey. The unlikely team works together to solve the old man’s mystery. You might be interested in exploring fantasy books, such as best authors like Sarah J Mass.

“To my mind, faith is like being in the sun. When you are in the sun, can you avoid creating a shadow? Can you shake that area of darkness that clings to you, always shaped like you, as if constantly to remind you of yourself? You can’t. This shadow is doubt. And it goes wherever you go as long as you stay in the sun. And who wouldn’t want to be in the sun?”

Yann Martel

5. Self

Referred to as a secret gem by reviewers, Self is praised as startlingly honest and provides readers with a first-person account of what it might be like for a person to change genders overnight. The protagonist tells their own story, and readers are taken along on a journey that forces them to consider what it might be like to deal with the issues the other side faces daily.

In addition, readers are fascinated by how the narrator can so simply adapt to a new life while navigating the day-to-day struggles that come with being female. Looking for more fiction reads? Check out our round-up of the best books by Dostoevsky.

“The one in Istanbul, too. Men who clicked at us. Boys who clicked at us. Men who felt they had the right to ooze their unctuous, unwanted attentions upon us regardless of our words, opinions or indifference. Men who decided they knew what we wanted, what destination, what product, what service, what price, before we had even opened our mouths. The bus driver who, seeing that I was asleep on the last row of seats, stopped his bus on the side of the highway, came back and kissed me, so that I woke up to this stranger looming over me and pushed him away angrily, calling out to Ruth, while he walked back smiling and laughing, proud of himself.”

Yann Martel

FAQs About The Best Yann Martel Books

What inspired Yann Martel to write Life of Pi?

Martel explained that he was inspired to write Life of Pi by the novella Max and the Cats, published in 1981 and by Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar. There has been some controversy, including critics accusing Martel of plagiarizing Scliar’s work. Martel thanked Scliair in the Author’s Note in Life of Pi.

How many books has Yann Martel written?

Yann Martel has written eight books, including Seven Stories, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, Self, Life of Pi, We Ate the Children Last, Beatrice and Virgil, 101 Letters to a Prime Minister, and The High Mountains of Portugal.